BURLINGTON, N.C. — Chris Sweeney was going to be a professional baseball player when he left home a couple of weeks ago.
It was just a matter of where.
The former King’s College standout set his sights on the Kansas City Royals organization. His first stop turned out to be a good move.
He was signed by the Royals as a non-drafted free agent after workouts for two days with the staff of the Burlington Royals, a rookie-league member of the Appalachian League.
From there, it took time for Sweeney to make it into a game. That finally happened Sunday afternoon — at a college venue, no less.
“I got a little taste of it,” he said after his unsuccessful pinch-hitting stint against the Kingsport Mets.
The next day, he singled in his first at-bat during his first starting assignment. He played both games of Monday’s doubleheader as Burlington’s left fielder.
Those are only a small sample for what Sweeney said he hopes turns out to be a rewarding summer as the Crestwood product takes this venture into a bit of the unknown.
“I got asked to come down for a workout,” he said. “They asked if I was still available to sign. This is the only team I worked out for.”
Sweeney arrived in Burlington, a city in north central North Carolina, with a goal. If he didn’t receive an offer from the Royals, he was heading to Indiana to play for the Evansville Otters in the independent Frontier League.
“I wouldn’t have driven all the way down here without a plan,” he said of the approximate nine-hour trip.
With a saturated field at Burlington Athletic Stadium, the workouts were limited to the covered batting cage. Manager Tommy Shields and hitting coach Abraham Nunez, both former big leaguers, conducted the sessions.
“We hit in the cage,” said Shields, who also scouts for the organization. “We couldn’t even get on the field. We told Scott (Sharp, Kansas City’s director of player development) from what we’ve seen, we’d sign him.”
The Burlington roster is comprised of a mixture of prospects, many spending time together in extended spring training. At age 21, Sweeney is the oldest of five outfielders.
For Sweeney, it’s a matter of fitting in.
“I did it the past two summers playing summer ball,” he said, noting the presence of Division I players. “It will be a transition, but this is nothing too new to me.”
His professional debut came about 2½ months since the end of King’s College’s season in late April. In the meantime, Sweeney said his routine included hitting daily while also playing in several adult-league settings and “any game I could find.”
“It has been longer than I would like to wait, but it’s stuff you can’t control,” he said.
Sharp met Sweeney upon arriving along with other minor-league officials and instructors from the parent Kansas City club.
“Just looking at him, you like what you see,” Sharp said.
Now it’s up to Sweeney to show what he can do.
“There’s an adjustment to playing,” he said. “I’ll have to adjust to the speed of the game. I’ve done it before so I’m looking forward to it.”
After signing, Sweeney accompanied the Royals on a three-game trip to Elizabethton, Tenn., but he wasn’t eligible to play until all aspects of his physical were complete — a timetable complicated by the Independence Day holiday.
Then cleared, he had to deal with darkened skies. With rain and a waterlogged outfield, the Burlington club had games called off on four consecutive days.
Unprecedented arrangements were made to move home games, with the Royals playing Sunday at Wake Forest Baseball Park (where there’s an all-artificial turf playing surface) an hour’s drive away in Winston-Salem and then Monday competing in a doubleheader at USA Baseball National Training Complex an hour away in the other direction in Cary.
Sweeney pinch hit in the bottom of the ninth inning Sunday, grounding out on a slow chopper to the third baseman.
“For a first at-bat, it was kind of what I expected,” he said. “I felt good. I saw the ball well. It will take a little bit to get my timing where it needs to be.”
There were only several dozen onlookers the past three games because of rescheduled games were away from the fan base. Among those on hand were a couple of Sweeney’s college teammates who arrived a few of days earlier hoping to watch Sweeney. The outfielder said the support was encouraging.
And they all ended up at a major-college venue and then at the USA Baseball facility.
“I was pretty pleased to get to play at Wake,” Sweeney said. “Now I can say I played in a D-1 ballpark, which I never did.”
After a league-wide off day Tuesday, Burlington heads for three days (five games plus a completion of a suspended game) against the Bluefield Blue Jays on Wednesday through Friday in West Virginia. They return for what’s supposed to be the start of a six-game homestand on the weekend.
Maybe then, Sweeney will play in Burlington, too.